Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban to kill Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, US officials have told the Associated Press.
The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump's written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. John Bolton, who was then the national security adviser, also told colleagues that he briefed Mr Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.
The White House did not respond to questions from AP about Mr Trump or other officials' awareness of Russia's provocations in 2019. The White House has said Mr Trump was not - and still has not been - briefed on the intelligence assessments because they have not been fully verified. However, it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of a doubt before it is presented to top officials.
Mr Bolton declined to comment on Monday when asked if he had briefed Mr Trump about the matter in 2019. On Sunday, he suggested to NBC's Meet the Press that Mr Trump was claiming ignorance of Russia's provocations to justify his administration's lack of a response.
"He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it," Mr Bolton said.
The revelations cast new doubt on the White House's efforts to distance Trump from the Russian intelligence assessments. It was reported on Sunday that concerns about Russian bounties were also included in a second written presidential daily briefing earlier this year and that national security adviser Robert O'Brien had discussed the matter with Mr Trump. Mr O'Brien denies he did so.
The administration's earlier awareness of the Russian efforts raises additional questions about why Mr Trump did not take any punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of Americans troops at risk. Mr Trump has sought throughout his time in office to improve relations with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, moving earlier this year to try to reinstate Russia as part of the G8.
Officials said they did not consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given that Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not a new occurrence. The officials with knowledge of Mr Bolton's apparent briefing for Mr Trump said it contained no "actionable intelligence," meaning the intelligence community did not have enough information to form a strategic plan or response. However, the classified assessment of Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the meeting.
Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!! https://t.co/cowOmP7T1S
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the highly sensitive information.
The intelligence that surfaced in early 2019 indicated Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 during the Obama administration.
The National Security Council and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence did hold meetings regarding the intelligence. The Pentagon declined to comment and the NSC did not respond to questions about the meetings.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Mr Putin, denied that Russian intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in exchange for targeting US and coalition forces.
The US is investigating whether any Americans died as a result of the Russian bounties. Officials are focused in particular on an April 2019 attack on an American convoy. Three US Marines were killed after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armoured vehicles as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest US military installation in Afghanistan.